Category Archives: Abbott’s Message

Star Wars, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Liturgy

Star Wars, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Liturgy
by Br. Abbot Dan Benedict, OSL

Time magazine (December 14, 2015, p. 74) quotes J. J. Abrams, the director, co-writer and co-producer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens saying of the characters in the film: “The idea that there would be a new generation of young people, a new generation of nobodies. That was what Star Wars was for me, so wonderfully: a story of desperate nobodies who became somebodies.”

I have just started reading American Magnificat: Protestants on Mary of Guadalupe, edited by Maxwell Johnson. The appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, a poor indigenous Indian “nobody,” nearly five centuries ago takes up the same story. Subject to the oppression, brutality, and marginalization by the Spanish colonizers, Juan Diego’s story is the encounter with God’s grace in a vision of Mary.

Mary of Guadalupe said to Juan Diego:

Know for certain, least of my sons, that I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God, through whom everything lives, the Lord of all things near and far…. Here [in the temple, the place of the vision] I will hear their [the people who cry to her] their weeping, their sorrow, and will remedy and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities and misfortunes. (1)

As Johnson writes in his introduction, “I would like to suggest that we [Protestants] might best appropriate the story and image of the Virgin of Guadalupe under the category of parable, that is, ‘the Virgin of Guadalupe as parable of justification,’ or, ‘Mary of Guadalupe as parable of the reign of God.’” Here Johnson emphasizes New Testament scholarship on the function of parable: “‘stories that defy the religious conventions, overturn tradition, and subvert the hearer’s expectations’ about how God is supposed to act in the world and, in so doing, ‘make room’ for the inbreaking of God’s reign.” (p. 8-9, quoting Nathan Mitchell, Real Presence, p. 48)

The power of Star Wars in contemporary myth making and of the Virgin of Guadalupe as primal American mythos, is that both give the “nobodies” an imaginative space in which we can become “somebody”—not by our doing but by a strange mercy and grace. (Recall Jesse Jackson’s rallying declaration to the disenfranchised, “You are somebody!”)

Without getting into arguments about “truth” and the truthfulness of beloved narratives, whether they started in 1531 or 1977, for Christians the story we tell and seek to become is anchored in grace of God’s rule—the grace manifest in Jesus Christ, the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord. That is the public work we engage in the liturgy of Word and Table, in which we and all who are nobodies are made somebodies. The liturgy rehearses us in this story week after week, year after year, A, B, C and A, B, C. Baptized into this story, we make Eucharist for all that God has done on behalf of the whole creation. The lectionary readings and the seasons of the year become occasions for “populating” our imaginations with Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna, Zacchaeus, the teary woman with the alabaster jar of ointment, Peter, Andrew, and a host of Hebrew and Greek Bible characters, all of whom are nobodies in the secular universe and somebodies in the world God so loved.

All of us, the whole ecosphere in which we are integral, fit the Apostle Paul’s description of God’s reversal of our pretensions to greatness in 1 Corinthians 1: 27-31: “God chose [chooses] what is foolish…to shame the wise; what is weak…to shame the strong; … what is low and despised … things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

So, the story we tell and that we are becoming in baptism and the gospel we enact is our glory and our burden. We come to it ever and again as strangers, or we don’t really come at all. To come to it as “insiders”, as those who belong, is alienation.(2) In every gathering around Word and Table we come as strangers to be surprised by the mystery of being chosen by this mercy, this attentiveness, this Presence who listens to that in us, inward and personal and outward and social, that weeps and sorrows.

Willingness to be “there” for the life of the world is the risk we embrace in waters of baptism and in every encounter with mercy and mystery in Word and Table. Recognizing that in film, art, iconic figures, and one’s own story of being welcomed as a stranger, a nobody, is the risk inherent in mindfulness and humility.

End notes:

(1) Queen of the Americas Guild. Accessed 12/20/15 Emphasis added.
(2) See Patrick Keifert, Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism.

The imagination joins the concrete and the abstract and connects the body with the heart and mind. In worship, the imagination seeks not ideas but “the orienting power of images. Ideas are abstract; we live concretely; and consequently, ‘we secure our senses of life and our senses of death from images.’” (p. 140, quoting Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man.)

Keifert explores the metaphor of the cross and how all of us meet before the cross as strangers. There we participate in an evangelical (and sacramental?) conversation. We meet before it as gamblers and thieves, barbarians, as Juan Diego, and experience for the first time or anew its strange hospitality. Psalm 137’s question, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” becomes a shared question to the church member and the visitor alike! The liturgy itself must be the foreign land anew and again each time we gather.

Copyright © 2015 Daniel Benedict, OSL. This column may be quoted in whole or in part for church educational and formation purposes. It may not be posted on a website without the author’s permission.

Paris COP21, Advent and the New Creation: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

This year Advent and the start of the Paris conference on climate change coincide. How does climate change challenge the ways Christians understand and pray,

Source: Paris COP21, Advent and the New Creation: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Shortly after my posting of this column, Br. Taylor Burton Edwards posted the following. I am grateful for Br. Taylor’s corrective of my over emphasis on “continuity” and think that it is an essential to what I wrote in the column. Theology is an ongoing and communal enterprise.

He wrote:
“Thank you for this, Br Daniel.

“The one caution I would offer is the potential for a real (and ongoing) tendency to underplay the actuality of the discontinuity the apocalyptic frame, which underlies Christian proclamation. The New Testament (and the minor prophets before it in the OT) maintain a call to vigilance and participation in this age AND a hope for a discontinuous (if equally incarnate and earthy) age to come. It seems to me that both affirmations are vital to the core of the Christian faith.

“So yes, by all means, the incursion of the kingdom of God (age to come) already within this present age calls us to do all we can to “serve this present age, our calling to fulfill.” But the hope with which we do this, as well as the authority and power by which we do it, is precisely from the age yet to come– an age and a culmination of God’s kingdom which is indeed discontinuous with this present age and its arrangements, including its arrangements of matter and energy, economics and politics.

“The discontinuity is at once declaration and reality. This age is thoroughly vitiated, beyond final reclamation as it stands, even if also infused with another vision and signs of life of the coming age.That reality does not lead us to abandon it, however. Rather, it sets us, as it did the Judean exiles, to be a sign of what God ultimately intends and “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7, NRSV).

“We need not (and I would argue must not) reject the discontinuous vision of the biblical apocalyptic frame simply because some have used that illegitimately to distract us from our mission here and now. Rather, we are called to affirm both– the discontinuity and the mission, and indeed the power of that discontinous/infused kingdom/age to motivate our participation in God’s mission– and so the care of the earth– here and now.”

Paris COP21, Advent and the New Creation: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

The day before the climate change conference began in Paris, Christians of all stripes sang, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” It is coincidental. But COP21 and giving voice to our yearning and hope illuminates this moment when the planet is at a critical juncture due to unsustainable human extraction and consumption? What is the meaning of “Advent” in such a world? This world?

Fr. Thomas Berry and others critique a brand of Advent piety and apocalyptic thinking that is otherworldly:
The salvific, redemptive traditions of the West tend to save humans out of the temporal order or to assign meaning to the temporal order in terms of a ‘salvation history,’ with an ultimate goal outside of time. (The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth, Kindle loc 398)

Reflecting on our hymnody in Advent would, I think, evidence this anticipation of being “saved out” of time and also disclose a counterbalancing hope of “redemption within” the temporal order. For an instantiation of the latter see the concluding hymn for Advent Morning Prayer in our new Lukan Book of Hours:

Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,
Hail in the time appointed, his reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free;
To take away transgression and rule in equity.

(James Montgomery, my emphasis)

Or see the opening hymn for Advent Morning Prayer:

O come, O Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by your advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Note the poetic dependence on earthy imagery!

A fuller examination of our Advent hymn and prayer texts would be interesting and revealing. We might find that some are, as Berry charges, oriented to God “saving us out of the temporal order” or assigning meaning to life in time with an ultimate goal outside of the temporal order. Other songs and prayers and ritual practices may need to be embodied in new awareness of how precious is the life of this planet we humans call Earth. The issues of climate change are pushing us to choose life here, now and to sing and say in new ways “for God so love the world….” The world God loves is not ephemeral and disposable, to be replaced by a discontinuous “heaven.” As we sing in the Great Thanksgiving: “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”

Historic Christianity denies escapism. Without denying the hope of heaven—the continuity of now and then and here and there (characteristic of most of Charles Wesley’s hymns)—the force of the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic tradition and the long sweep of orthodox and ecumenical Christian liturgy and doctrine is that life on earth and our integral communion with all things is the realm of discipleship on this blue-green ball in an immense universe. Even with cosmologist’s exploring the possibility of “other universes” I continue to believe that the Biblical tradition calls us to assert that ultimately in Love’s universe there is no other “there” for us.

That is what Thomas Berry illuminates with his “three mediations” (See Chapter 2 in The Christian Future). The first mediation or critical relationship we have had to address is the human-divine for ten thousand years or so. The second is the human-human relationship with all of its challenges in the family, within nations and between nations and cultures for the last several thousand years. The third mediation is uniquely emergent in our time (since the 1970s): it addresses the relationship of humanity with our ecosphere—this planet—that must be resolved if there is to be a continuing human future on the planet. (See loc 451)

Far from being escapist piety, understood in these terms, Berry

To see this third mediation as a preeminent Christian task in our times is to begin formation of a powerful planetary     force that will hopefully become effective on the scale needed . . . . Only religious forces can move human consciousness at the depth needed….over the long period of time during which adjustment must be made. (Christian Future, loc 460)
I muse on Berry’s next emphatic statement as the Climate Change conference in Paris continues: “Only religion can measure the magnitude of what we are about.” (loc 460)

No, they won’t be singing Advent hymns at the Paris conference. That is the task of public worship in our churches. Will we sing, preach and pray in such a way that our minds and hearts are caught up in the magnitude of what God is about in the New Creation as COP21 goes on simultaneously with our embodying Advent anticipation?

Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, his encyclical on the care of our common home, is invitation and call for our liturgical engagement and reflection leading to change for the life of the world. Laudato Si teases out the dimensions of our baptismal vocation on a planetary scale. Advent worship happening simultaneously with the Paris meeting could and should deepen our preaching, prayer and awareness that “heaven and earth are full of your glory” is a glory humanity may not tarnish with impunity! Or to put it positively, it is a glory we are called to see and know and cherish “on earth as it is in heaven.”

In Advent the Holy Spirit calls the church to join with Mary’s subversive song.

You have shown the strength of your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit.
You have cast the mighty from their thrones;
you have lifted up the lowly
You have filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich you have sent away empty.

When we sing the Magnificat we dare an alternative reading of the world; we give voice to our doubt that the present “system” is working and put our trust in the one who “has done great things for us.” We leave behind being “nice” and complicit with the existing order of things. We renounce (remember that part of baptism) our pride, privilege and sin of clinging to the extractive economic, political, industrial-consumer system that plunders the poor and the planet. Strangely, the scientific community is joining the prophets in saying, Seek good and not evil that you may live. (Amos 5:14) They are all but unanimous that fossil fuel powered life as we know it is unsustainable and that climate warming will soon be irreversible.

Giving voice to Mary’s subversive song is not most of us learned in Sunday School or catechetical formation. Yet transformation on the scale need requires we too touch the nerve of her daring subversiveness. Many of us at the OSL retreat know the power of singing Rory Cooney’s setting of the Magnificat (Book of Offices and Services, no. 71) where with Mary we sing to God:

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of you justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.
Words and music © 1990 GIA Publications, Inc

There is passion there to fuel transformation.

Advent song, Psalms, and liturgy afford us a space to question our complicity with a systems that impoverish God’s creation and to risk finding new ways to embody the apostolic hope of the New Creation already begun in Christ crucified and risen.

How will you and your congregation take up the challenge faced by those gathered in Paris and that we all face on this warming planet? How will our apostolic hope inform and form us for the transformation we pray for in Advent? How will it shape your preaching and teaching and service short term and long term?

Abbot Daniel
December 2, 2015

Stability and Community

One of the confusing and sometimes embarrassing aspects of our Order is our lack of “location”. We have no mother house. As religious we do not reside in this or that place. We are an order in dispersal. We seem to be monastic orphans. Contrary to the expectations of our culture, we have no cloister, cells or the usual trappings of Hollywood movie monks and we do not meet the expectations of those who are familiar with cloistered communities as the image of monastic life.

I confess that there are times when explaining that I am the abbot of the Order of Saint Luke I see people’s visage change to quizzical and I can tell that they are wondering where is your monastic habit and where is the community of which you are abbot. You too may experience such spoken or unspoken questions. Continue reading

The end we start from

I hope you will treat yourself to the current film, “Philomena.”

In the driveway after a long journey and arriving at the Convent where it all began, Martin observes to Philomena:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. (T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding-V”)

Neither of them has any idea of how demanding that “end” will be. Neither do we. That is the fierce mystery isn’t it? Endings are “often” staggering beginnings. Continue reading